Member Research

Brett J. Gall: When Is Unequal Undeserved? Learning About Equality of Opportunity in an Unequal World

Is economic inequality self-perpetuating? I argue certain types of economic inequalities encourage low-income individuals to respond to greater income disparities by adopting esteem-preserving misperceptions regarding the economy. Such demands encourage the poor to believe economic inequality reflects differences in economic opportunity rather than differences in ability or effort and can lead to the perpetuation of misperceptions amongst the poor even when faced with objective signals about the true distribution of economic opportunity. As a result, psychological responses to inequality may undermine the persistence of inequality through the development of beliefs delegitimizing economic outcomes. Using a novel experiment in which I exploit an incentive-compatible mechanism to elicit participants’ beliefs as they receive noisy signals about the true distribution of economic opportunity, I find inequality and self-esteem motivations interact to foster misperceptions amongst the poor while confirmation bias facilitates the persistence of differences in beliefs across economic environments. In the long run, beliefs converge across economic contexts in response to the correction of misperceptions. These results suggest a crucial role for the informational environment as a moderator of the effect of inequality on beliefs about the causes of inequality.

Joshua Doyle: Cascades of Trust: How Cultural Beliefs About the Trustworthiness of Others Induce Patterns of Cooperative Behaviors

How does culture influence the decisions individuals make? In a series of experimental studies, I test how cultural beliefs about the trustworthiness of others influence the decision of whether to cooperate or defect in a public goods experimental game. I hypothesize that when people infer from their cultural environment that most people believe others are trustworthy, they will contribute more toward the public good, and less when their their cultural environment is biased toward the belief that others are not trustworthy. Finally, I test whether these cultural conditions create availability cascades: as individuals base their initial decision of what to contribute in the public goods game on their inference from cultural information about trust they create the very conditions suggested by those beliefs over several rounds of the game in the lab, regardless of whether they were inclined to cooperate or defect at the beginning.

Brian Guay and Jesse Lopez: Principled or Partisan? Assessing the Extent of Partisanship in a Polarized Political Climate

Are political attitudes rooted in partisan loyalty or political values? In this study we examine the extent to which attitudes about privacy and government surveillance are influenced by partisanship and fundamental beliefs about privacy and the role of government. We leverage the inaugural test of the Presidential Alert system in 2018, during which the Trump administration sent a mandatory message titled “Presidential Alert” to nearly all cell phones in the U.S. Despite it’s bipartisan origins, public reaction to the alert appeared to be fiercely partisan rather than based on fundamental beliefs about privacy and the role of government. To measure the extent to which the alert polarized beliefs about privacy and the role of government, we randomize whether respondents answer the same set of privacy questions before or after the alert, and whether they associate the alert with the Trump or Obama administration. Our findings shed light on the extent to which attitudes are based on deeply-held political values in an era of increasing political polarization. For a link to coverage on this study in the Washington Post, click here.

Brian Guay and Christopher Johnston: Reexamining Ideological Asymmetries in Openness to Political Information

This paper explores the psychological origins of politically motivated reasoning and differences in openness to new information between liberals and conservatives. Decades of research in political psychology suggest that ideological differences in motivated reasoning are driven by needs for epistemic closure. This asymmetry hypothesis suggests that conservatives should be more politically closed-minded than liberals. An opposing theory argues that political bias emerges from political identity and predicts symmetry across ideology. In a series of national survey experiments we evaluate the extent of ideologically asymmetric politically-motivated reasoning using multiple issues and measures of political orientation, and provide what is to our knowledge the first direct test of the theorized mechanisms underpinning the asymmetry and symmetry hypotheses. Specifically, we compare the moderating role of personality traits to measures of identity and psychological investment in political attitudes. While we find substantial amounts of motivated reasoning, our results clearly indicate no ideological difference in openness. Further, we find that traits commonly associated with closed-mindedness have no consistent moderating effect on openness. Perhaps surprisingly, we find no consistent moderating role of investment in one’s opinions and identity. Our paper suggests that political scientists know less than we thought about the bases of political closed-mindedness.

Christopher Johnston and Gabe Madson: Behaviorally Indicated Negativity Bias, Personality, and Political Ideology

Recent work suggests that right-wing political preferences are associated with individual differences in negativity bias: a tendency to pay more attention, and give more weight, to negative versus positive stimuli in decision making. This work tends to rely on either self-report measures of personality in large, often-representative samples, or physiological and behavioral indicators of negativity bias in small and unrepresentative samples. Little work has tested hypotheses emerging from this literature with large diverse samples using non-self-report indicators of negativity bias. In the present study, we attempt to fill this gap. We examine the relationship of negativity bias to political ideology in three large national samples using five distinct behavioral measures of negativity bias. We also examine the association of these measures to four of the commonly utilized self-report measures of personality. Across a wide range of tests, we find little support for the negativity bias hypothesis.

David Ciuk, Christopher Johnston, and Jesse Lopez: Competing Moral Minds? Reexamining Moral Conflict between the Left and Right in American Politics

What explains mass polarization in American politics? A compelling proposal is that it is driven by moral conflict between the left and right. This hypothesis finds its strongest empirical support in research applying moral foundations theory. While the left primarily utilizes care and fairness (“individualizing” foundations) in moral judgment, the right also considers loyalty, authority, and sanctity (“binding” foundations) as important moral principles. This generates a “moral empathy gap” that fosters intolerance and gridlock. We argue that existing evidence for a sharp moral divide separating the left and right rests largely on a survey measure with significant limitations—the moral foundations questionnaire. We outline the methodological issues associated with this measure and use two alternative strategies to test the claims of moral foundations theory as they relate to American political conflict. We find that moral differences between the American left and right are much smaller than suggested by previous research.